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CPA Exam Strategy: When And What Section Should You Take First?



When you take each exam, section is important. Don’t set yourself up for failure by planning to sit for a section two days after a major event, such as a family wedding or completion of a large project at work. Your energy level will be low.

Select a date when you will have time to study and review so your performance will be optimal.  Poor exam timing selection might be part of the reason why people fail on their first attempt. They don’t take the time to match taking the CPA exam to the events of their lives. Give yourself the best possible chance of passing. Plan for it.


“Is it a good idea to sit for all four sections within one testing window?” You may ask.

This post provides timing strategy for taking CPA exam that success. It also answer a very specific question “which section should I take first?” Read on…

A testing window is the first two months of every calendar quarter. For example, if you graduate from college in the middle of May, should you hurry to complete all four sections by the end of May, doing this just to see what the exam looks like? It is not recommended doing this. Why? You will gain little insight into the exam process just by taking a section. The questions are drawn from a large database.  It is very unlikely that you will see any repeat questions during your second exam attempt. Previewing the exam just for informational content is costly in both money and confidence.

Even though you may think that you just were previewing and didn’t expect to pass, that little voice inside might say: “You aren’t good enough to pass the CPA exam”. You know you are smart enough to complete the task, but now your confidence has begun to erode. The most efficient and effective method is to prepare for each and every section. If this takes time, plan for it. Don’t ignore it. Candidates must pay each time they take a section. There is no free exam or reduced fee for repeat takers. View each attempt as important.

Think about why you failed; it doesn’t hurt to face up to it now; perhaps you failed because you didn’t plan well. If this has happened to you, don’t focus on the failure. Look ahead and correct what you can. Admit that perhaps your results were partly affected by the timing of your exam attempt in relation to what was happening in your life at the time. The computer-based exam allows you flexibility. Make that flexibility work for you.

Think ahead. When you are entering the planned examination dates on your calendar, think about family birthdays and anniversaries, planned vacations, work deadlines, and any other events that you encounter during the year. Sure, it may sound like a good idea to take an exam section one week after the completion of tax season, but for most people, this is one of the absolute worst times to test. You are too exhausted to prepare properly.

Most of us cannot jump from one big challenge to another without some down time to reenergize both our minds and bodies; If you know that the usual quarterly close takes three to five days of intense work, don’t schedule to take a section around that time. Be proactive when determining the best possible situation. A little planning on your part can make your life so much easier in the long run.

Caution: Don’t stretch your exam-taking experience out so long that you have not allowed time to retake a section or two. Remember, as soon as you successfully complete one section, the eighteen-month time clock begins ticking from the date that you sat for the first section. Build some extra time into your timetable.


Once you know when you plan to sit, it’s time to think about which section should you take first. Read on…


Which Section Should You Take First?

You might think it is wise to take the shortest section, Business Environment and Concepts (BEC), first. You could get your feet wet, so to speak, with a two and one-half hour section and then work your way up to the four and one-half hour Auditing and Attestation (AUDIT) section. If you are fearful of the overall testing process, taking the shortest section first might be beneficial. However, for most people, passing one of the two longer sections, such as AUDIT or Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR), first is much more beneficial. Why does it matter?

As soon as a candidate successfully completes a section, an eighteen-month time clock begins to tick. Once you pass a section of the examination, you are allowed a maximum of eighteen months from the date on which you sat for the first section to pass all remaining sections in order to retain credit on the passed section. If you do not pass all four sections within the eighteen-month time period, you will lose credit for the first section that you passed. A new eighteen-month period will commence on the date you pass the next section. Why does this rule exist?

The rule is in place to assure the general public that upon passing all four sections, a new CPA’s total skill set is up-to-date and current. Do you want to be under time pressure to complete the longer sections or the shorter ones? Also, new accounting graduates are the most prepared for the audit, tax, and financial topics right out of school because they have recently completed the coursework.

For these reasons, I suggest that you select either AUDIT or FAR to take first.


Next, register for Regulation (REG), and save BEC for last. However, if you don’t have a choice because of other outside factors, such as the timing of an exam section review course, don’t let the order bother you. It is more important to begin the process than to delay taking the exam just to follow a suggested plan. Passing the exam is your experience; plan it accordingly and be happy with your choices.

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